Learning To Parent by Experience

Before I became a parent, I did not know how to parent. I had the modeling of my own parents. A mixed blessing. I also had many theories from my training as a psychotherapist. Some have held water. Others leaked badly. I read books about parenting. But the books did not agree with each other.

Luckily, just as I became a father, an expert on raising children moved into our house. She calls me Daddy. Everything I thought might be true about parenting has since had to be tested by this little child development specialist. Only direct experience with her has converted theory into skill.

The accumulation of experience, however, has an essential component: mistakes. I have made many of them. Countless times I have watched my daughter respond the "wrong" way to what I considered to be the "right" parenting technique. Eventually my experience and my mistakes teach me something new. Then I confidently apply my new expertise to other children, and what happens? More mistakes. It seems I really have only learned to parent my own child. And she keeps changing!

Knowing the importance of experience and mistakes, let us consider the predicament of most fathers, whose work takes them away from their children.

Mom or another caregiver has been with the kids all day, making mistakes and learning from them. Dad takes over in the evening and promptly begins... making mistakes. Mom is watching, listening, perhaps correcting him. Its embarrassing as all hell!

Dads often don't get to see the experience and mistakes that taught Mom what she knows. Many mistakenly come to think that women are innately more skilled at this stuff than men. In comparison to those with more experience, fathers often feel inadequate and vulnerable to criticism. They see themselves bumble and they begin to relinquish care giving to those who have developed more skills. In so doing they forgo the direct experience with their children that is necessary to develop their own parenting skills.

The tragic irony is that a father's lack of experience parenting may lead him to avoid spending time with his children, the only cure for his lack of experience!

For fathers to stay active and involved with their kids we have to be able to feel successful in this role. First we must claim our inherent potential to be excellent caregivers. We are not doomed to failure because of our gender. Secondly, we must value our unique connection to our children. No matter what our foibles, there is something about who we are that is important for our children to know. We enrich their lives by relating our unique perspectives. We offer an important alternative to our children's other caregivers, each of whom, no mater how skilled, have their blind spots. And thirdly, we must give ourselves permission to make mistakes, look awkward, and thereby gather the experience that will make us excellent parents. We do not need to know everything from the start. Experience is there to teach us if we are patient enough to gather it before we judge ourselves compared to those with more of it. When we give ourselves the space to make mistakes with our children, we can feel the personal victories of figuring out creative solutions by ourselves.

© 2007, Tim Hartnett

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Your children need your presence more than your presents. - Jesse Jackson

Tim Hartnett, Ph.D. is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice in Santa Cruz, CA. He specializes in Individual Counseling, Couples Therapy, and Divorce Mediation. He can be reached at 831.464.2922 or through his website:

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